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Into the unknown with a magical genius

Holcombe Waller pours his years of conflict into new music
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT With an eye on increasing his exposure and marketability, Portland musician Holcombe Waller wants to make an impact on a larger scale by moving into pop. He just released his fourth album – the first in six years – entitled "Into the Dark Unknown."

Holcombe Waller put a lot of soul searching and thought into his fourth and latest album, 'Into the Dark Unknown.'

All the songs stem from his personal turmoils and triumphs, the ups and downs of the life of a conflicted and disillusioned man in his early 30s.

After all, it took five years to make. That's a lot of livin' packed into one album of songs.

'I'm a recovering self-defeatist,' says Waller, the singer/songwriter who has called Portland home for the past six years. 'What it really took to make the record was moving past that self-defeatism.'

It's a cleansing time for Waller, 35, whose album, produced by his own Napoleon Records, contains songs performed during his touring, multimedia theater show.

'It's nice to put the music into the world, and nice to hear all kinds of responses to it,' he says. 'I've been doing this long enough, I know you can't make everyone happy. I make a particular kind of music, it's not for everyone.'

But, times change, and Waller sees 'Into the Dark Unknown' as documentation of one part of his life, with his next project destined to show his happier side. He has a new direction for his career and a solid personal relationship supporting him emotionally. With the help of longtime friend Alicia J. Rose, the somewhat locally unknown Waller wants to make an impact on a larger scale. He's thinking about moving into pop.

'I've been wanting to change gears,' he says. 'This album is preceding my upcoming pop opus. I'm heading in a different, fun, uplifting direction, which is exciting for me.'

His admirers - and he has many - say that Waller has always had great talent. It's just a matter of packaging.

Rose, the former co-owner and booker at Mississippi Studios, says that her dear friend has always resisted help, despite feeling overwhelmed.

'I come in because he is a self-defeatist,' says Rose, Waller's new manager. 'I won't allow him to be a self-defeatist.'

Waller released 'Into the Dark Unknown' Feb. 15 and hosted an album release party Feb. 20 at the Alberta Rose Theatre, and also planned release gigs in New York and San Francisco and a spring/summer tour. He sang songs with Storm Large and China Forbes at the Portland release party.

'I had heard of him, and then I was really blown away by his (soprano) voice, eternally soulful and high for a man,' says Forbes, a member of Pink Martini. 'He's almost like a boys choir singer, so high and pure, a perfect thing. It's like Christina Aguilera went into the body of an altar boy in a choir.

'I always assumed everybody in town knows who he is. He's very unforgettable with a name like Holcombe Waller. Once you witness him, you'll never forget him. It's a question of exposure. Portland would totally embrace him, if they knew more about him.'

Rose says Waller's voice reminds her of a mix of Nick Drake, Rufus Wainwright, Jeff Buckley and Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons - but mostly Drake, 'sublime and emotional, real and human,' she says.

Adds Rose: 'He has an absolutely magical genius when it comes to mining the darkest moments for musical narrative, the uncanny ability to wrap the listener in the palm of his hand and let them drip into the song - 'I'm in a cup of hot chocolate and it feels really good.''

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CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT/TRIBUNE PHOTOS • Holcombe Waller celebrates the release of "Into the Dark Unknown" with a live performance at the Alberta Rose Theatre last Sunday, where friends and local musicians Matt Sheehy (above), Storm Large and Pink Martini's China Forbes (at rehearsal, below) joined him on stage.

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Bohemia lives

Waller grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, moved to Portland and doesn't plan another move anytime soon.

He loves Portland - because it isn't San Francisco or Seattle, or Los Angeles or New York. Portland has its own musical identity, he says, and Waller fits in. And, in the near future, Waller's sister and mother and father are wanting to move here.

'It's the Berlin of the I-5 corridor,' he says. 'Where bohemia still lives, where artists can be artists. Where I can bastion a lifestyle that I can enjoy, that doesn't cost as much. Great creative theme here, people doing their own thing.'

Theater performances and making commission music had taken up much of Waller's time in the past five years, in addition to meticulously self-producing his own album with his band The Healers. His touring show consisted of music, words and video - the telling of stories - and it made sense for him to put all the songs on an album.

A crew filmed part of his next music video during the Feb. 20 Alberta Rose Theatre concert. Waller, a film major at Yale, has delved extensively in video, but not much with his performances. He and Rose had recently shot a video for 'Bored of Memory,' gallivanting in the Columbia River Gorge with Super 8-millimeter film and high-resolution digital cameras, and made the video in a process he called 'bediting,' because it involved 'a laptop, a snack basket and a cozy warm bed with lots of pillows. The result is really intimate and lovely.'

The song's story is romance, nostalgia and love against the song's lyrical themes of war, memory and loss - a nod to the recent overturning of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and the repressed romances of yesteryear.

The video was premiered on Out.com, and all of his videos can be seen on YouTube.

Waller also attended the Sundance Film Festival, taking in a screening of 'We Were Here: The AIDS Years in San Francisco,' for which he wrote the score for filmmaker David Weissman and co-director Bill Weber.

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CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT/TRIBUNE PHOTO • After making a name for himself in recent years through his multimedia theater show, Holcombe Waller worked with choreographers and production staff recently preparing to make his newest music video.

Niche career

Things are becoming more beautiful and less unsettling for Waller, who shares a North Portland home with his partner, Blake. 'I'm in a nice relationship, and (relationships) had single-handedly created 80 percent of the angsty pool I've been fishing and swimming in,' he says.

Rose wants to help her friend set up a tour, get a major record deal and become a big thing. Waller wants to make it big, too, while keeping a realistic approach.

'As I've gotten older, it's harder and harder to eek by on the kind of income that comes from having a niche artistic career,' he says. 'So the work has to scale up, or I have to get another job. It's tricky, because to scale up the work takes a team, and to have a team costs money; to afford this money, you have to make a lot of money.

'It's a Catch-22, but I've decided to throw my hat into the ring, and make it my goal to whip that spiral upwards into reality, both creatively and economically. It's simply time.'